My work also looks at the ideals of beauty and femininity represented by examples of privileged members of society, and the aspirations of the less fortunate women to be like them. – Mary Sibande (source)
South African artist Mary Sibande is not a steampunk, but her work is reflective of the forms of creative play that many participants of the steampunk community engage in. Her work, influenced by Yinka Shonibare MBE and Kara Walker, speaks to the imaginative ideal where the working class seeks refuge in the psycho-drama of “Victoriana make-believe.”
By investigating the role of the South African women in today’s post-apartheid society, Sibande reveals the schism between what society had aspired to–in part influenced by its British colonialist past–and the social and economic realities for many of its citizens, particularly in the disempowerment of black South African women.
In creating these statues of Sophie, Sibande cast her own body in these poses and designed and constructed Victorian-inspired dresses out materials used in everyday domestic uniforms. In assuming the role of the domestic worker, Sibande throws out her own privileged identity to shed light on the structures of of class and race that still exist; as Mary Corrigall explains in her anaylsis of Sibande’s work:
Sibande isn’t challenging or rejecting her affluence – it is her confidence in her status that allows her to parade as a domestic worker. The domestic worker is a mask, like any other she can slip on and off at will. The ease with which she is able to do this implies that no one is defined by their appearance. In assuming the guise of this highly politicised character, Sibande is able to explore, ridicule and subvert the structures that victimised the domestic worker. It’s a cathartic and subversive act.
While steampunks may not intend to subvert their own privileged or unprivileged identities with the personas they create, the illusion of the “upper class” of steampunks that exists in the community — self-proclaimed professors, doctors, generals, scientists and aristocrats — contrasts with the mostly mundane professions and lives of its participants. What it interested to observe in the community, however, is how much a steampunk persona betrays or aligns with a person’s true identity (after all, I do know many real life professors, doctors, and scientists who very much enjoy role playing their idealized version of their everyday jobs!) Nevertheless, the role of creative play and its use in the community can be used as a focal point when analyzing steampunk subculture and its aesthetics.